Automata have an enduring interest. The rise of examination (and to a degree anxiety) into AI, the digital world and its intersection with art, music, culture and society, means the exhibition at Compton Verney comes at the right moment. It looks back and forwards at our long-term fascination with making the inert ert. (Automata were also the focus of recent discussion on In Our Time, Radio 4; and the V&A are currently exhibiting ‘Videogames:Design/Play/Disrupt’ and ‘The Future Starts Here’.)
In times of uncertainty, we return to the comfort zone of what we can control (or think we can control). The title of the exhibition, ‘The Marvellous Mechanical Museum’, is suggestive of a Victorian fairground. Delight and entertainment do play their part in the exhibition; however, the scope of what is shown goes much further. The exhibition plays with this idea of control – political commentary masquerades as whimsy (Rowland Emmett’s work ‘A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley’ delights – the airy line drawing of an automation, however, refers to a railway line in Sussex closed during Beeching’s cuts); the all-pervading fascination with the human as the creator is prevalent from the exploration of Frankenstein in Ting Tong Chang’s works; and the illustrations depicting scenes from The Sandman by Stuart Patience itself was used as the underlying story for the ballet Coppélia, which premiered in the 1870s, and perhaps also for the singing puppets of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – humans masquerading as puppets mimicking humans (Rowland Emmet also worked on the fantastical contraptions that appeared in the film).
The contained worlds of the works of Keith Newstead (‘Baba Yaga’) and Rodney Peppé (‘Tyger! Tyger!’), among others, place us in a position of power and enable us to control the tempo or activate movement – you turn the handle or put the coin in the slot. These theatres include depictions of fairy tales, and folk art, art history, and the representations of women in art (‘Les Demoiselles’). The artworks are delightful, political and irreverent.
The last room makes us the object of focus – the machines seem alive. The red glove of Tim Lewis (‘The Crimson Prince’) is capable of thought; the viewer is subject to judgment, scrutiny and observation. With fingers in a horned position, it is reminiscent of a shadow puppet, the devil, blood and a fairy tale prince (surely a relative of Bluebeard?). Though the viewer/subject is aware that the glove is mechanised and/or programmed, there is a sense that the hand could break free of those limitations and act independently. It looks poised to throttle; it is just waiting for the right moment.
‘Defence Cascade’ by Harrison Pearce is a kinetic sculpture and sound installation. The three fleshy forms, which are alternatively stroked, probed, pushed and tested, represent the limbic areas of the brain – the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus. An observer cannot help but feel empathy for them. The mechanised probes fluctuate between cruel and kind acts; there is a tension between the two elements – their relationship governed by the music. Talking about his work, Harrison Pearce describes the defence cascade in psychiatry and neuroscience as being characterised “as a continuum of innate, hard-wired, automatically activated defensive behaviours in response to threats, of which the fight or flight response is an integral part. It is supposed that this operation begins within the limbic system in the brain. The forms of the sculptural elements in the work are modelled on doctors’ simplified drawings of the limbic system. The music, composed by Alex Mills, follows a diagram of the sequence of responses in the defence cascade, described as arousal, fight/flight, fright, flag and faint.”
I asked Harrison about the relationship between the machinery and the three forms: “I think the most obvious relationship between the machinery and the soft sculptures appears malevolent. I don’t quite think of it that way. It is by means of the machinery that the sculptures appear to come to life at all; any empathy directed towards them is, I think, because the machine both animates and abuses them. I like descriptions of the machine as a representation of invisible forces that act upon our hard wired responses to the external world. It’s chilling and difficult to think of ourselves as an impotent passenger in our own lived experience but these are some of the more hyperbolic ideas being investigated in both science and philosophy today.”
When asked about the link between the work with the history of automata, he says: “I really wasn’t appealing to that nostalgia even though I clearly am continuing in the tradition of Promethean science to some extent. In industry, automation and the move to AI are forcing difficult conversations on us, so that philosophical thought isn’t a superfluous luxury but a necessity (driverless cars, for instance). I think of philosophy as an activity but I’m not strict enough to do it properly – I want to help myself to the distraction of disparate modes of thought as part of a single project, and art is far better suited to that way of working. Art takes ambiguity as a virtue and that feels more familiar to me.”
The Marvellous Mechanical Museum